The Great Race

Posted on May 26, 2008 at 8:00 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: All Ages
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: July 1, 1965

Dedicated to “Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy,” this movie is both a spoof and a loving tribute to the silent classics, with good guys, bad guys, romance, adventure, slapstick, music, wonderful antique cars, and the biggest pie fight in history. The opening credits are on a series of slides like those in the earliest movies, complete with cheers for the hero and boos for the villain, and a flickering old-fashioned projector that at one point appears to break down. Always dressed in impeccable white, the Great Leslie (Tony Curtis) is a good guy so good that his eyes and teeth literally twinkle. His capable mechanic and assistant is Hezekiah (Keenan Wynn). The bad guy is Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon), assisted by Max (Peter Falk). Like Wile E. Coyote, Fate’s cartoonishly hilarious stunts to stop Leslie inevitably backfire.

After a brief prologue, in which Fate tries to beat Leslie in breaking various speed records, literally trying to torpedo him at one point, they both enter an automobile race from New York to Paris. So does a beautiful reporter (Natalie Wood as Maggie DuBois) trying to prove she can get the story — dressed in an endless series of exquisite ensembles designed by Hollywood legend Edith Head. Great%20Race2.jpg

The race takes them across America, through the Wild West, to a rapidly melting ice floe in the Pacific, and into a European setting that is a cross between a Victor Herbert operetta and “The Prisoner of Zenda,” where a spoiled prince happens to look exactly like Professor Fate and it takes all of the stars to foil an evil Baron (Ross Martin) who wants to use Fate to take over the throne.

This is a perfect family movie, just plain fun from beginning to end.  It may also provide an opportunity for a discussion of competition and sportsmanship.  At the end, Leslie deliberately loses as a gesture of devotion to Maggie DuBois.  Professor Fate, after all, shows some sense of honor — apparently it is all right for him to cheat to win, but not all right to win by having Leslie refuse to compete.  “You cheated — I refuse to accept!”  Modern adults may wince a bit at Dubois’ notion of how to attain equal opportunity — she ultimately succeeds by showing her leg to the editor, who becomes too dazed to argue further.  But like “Mary Poppins,” it provides a chance to remind children that when their great-grandparents were children, women did not even have the right to vote.

Questions for Kids:

  • Should Leslie have let Fate win?
  • Why wasn’t Fate happy when he beat Leslie?
  • Why was Fate so jealous of Leslie?
  • Why did DuBois want to be a reporter so badly?

 

Connections:  Curtis and Lemmon also appeared together in one of the greatest comedies of all time, “Some Like it Hot.”   Children who enjoy this movie might like to see some of the silent classics it saluted, like “Two Tars,” in which Laurel and Hardy create chaos in the middle of an enormous traffic jam.  They might also enjoy “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines” or “Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies.”  Children who have enjoyed Ed Wynn as Uncle Albert (who “loves to laugh”) in “Mary Poppins” may like to know that his son, Keenan Wynn, plays Leslie’s assistant Hezekiah.

 

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Can Hatred be Funny?

Posted on May 25, 2008 at 3:32 pm

Dave Itzkoff of the New York Times has an article in today’s paper about the forthcoming Adam Sandler movie, “Don’t Mess with the Zohan,” about “an Israeli assassin who flees to the United States to become a hairdresser.”

Trailers for the film promise plenty of broad farce, physical comedy and at least one lewd dance routine. What the ad campaign for “Zohan” does not emphasize is that the film also attempts to satirize the continuing tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and provide humorous commentary on one of the least funny topics of modern times with a comedian who is not exactly known for incisive political wit.

Movies have always been more willing to take on sensitive and especially politically incendiary subjects through comedy earlier and more incisively than they have in drama. Two movies that came out the same year were both reactions to the Cold War. Hardly anyone remembers “Failsafe,” the compelling but very earnest dramatic version anymore, but the comedy, “Dr. Strangelove,” is considered a classic. Charlie Chaplin (“The Great Dictator”) and German immigrant Ernst Lubitsch (“To Be or Not to Be”) had the courage to be critical of Hitler while dramatic films like “Watch on the Rhine” were just beginning to catch up.

The Times reports that the filmmakers had a hard time getting ethnically Arab actors to even try out for the film. But the article also says that those who did accept parts engaged in some very frank but friendly exchanges between shots.

Badreya, who was recently seen playing an Afghan terrorist in “Iron Man,” said that by offering Arab or Muslim characters that are in any way divergent from the usual Hollywood stereotypes, “Zohan” is a step in the right direction.

“The movie presents what happened to me,” said Mr. Badreya, who grew up in Port Said, Egypt, during the 1967 and 1973 wars and emigrated to the United States in 1979. “Since it happened to me, it will work for someone like me.”

Mr. Badreya said that the comedy in “Zohan” was not quite evenly divided between ridiculing Arabs and ridiculing Jews. “The jokes are not 50-50,” he said. “It’s 70-30. Which is great. We haven’t had 30 for a long time. We’ve been getting zero. So it’s good.”

From the trailer, it appears that the movie creates some humor from gender stereotypes and that it casts longtime Sandler friend Rob Scheider, whose ethnic background is part European-Jewish and part Filipino, as an Arab, providing even more opportunities for offense — and comedy.

Baderya said he was persuaded to try out for the part by his daughter, a fan of Sandler’s films. That may be the most hopeful sign of common ground of all.

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Meerkat Manor returns!

Posted on May 25, 2008 at 11:18 am

Meerkat Manor: The Next Generation” starts on Animal Planet June 6. And tonight, families can prepare by watching “Meerkat Manor: The Story Begins,” a feature film narrated by Whoopi Goldberg about the early story of Flower, before she became the Manor’s famous first lady, from her birth and early years as a young, inexperienced meerkat to a family leader, guiding her mob (family) in one of the harshest deserts on the planet.

As with March of the Penguins and other nature documentaries, some of the harsh realities of life and death are confronted by these wonderfully alert little creatures. Parents should be prepared to talk to children about these issues and about the way that the meerkat mob (a community of families) works together to take care of each other.

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Red Band Trailers

Posted on May 24, 2008 at 8:18 pm

Most movie trailers shown in theaters are “green band” trailers. Even though the movies they advertise may be rated PG-13 or R, the trailers themselves have been approved for all audiences by the MPAA Ratings Board, as they make clear with an advisory at the beginning. But there are also “red band” trailers for R films, so called because they begin with a red background, that include mature material. These trailers are only shown before R-rated films, the idea being that since those films are for audiences 17 and older only, there is little likelihood that underage audiences will see them.
Of course, the Internet has changed all of that. Red band trailers are available online with the flimsiest of protections. All anyone has to do to access them is type in a name and birth date that match driver’s license records. A middle-schooler who knows his parents’ birthdays has everything he needs. In some cases, unauthorized versions of the red band trailers are added to blogs and myspace pages without any age restrictions.
This week’s “Saturday Night Live” had a commercial for the R-rated “Tropic Thunder,” starring teen favorites Ben Stiller and “Iron Man’s” Robert Downey, Jr., that invited viewers to access the red band trailer online and conveniently provides the URL.
Parents should make sure that their conversations with older children and young teens about their use of the Internet include discussions of family rules about material like red band trailers.

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Is Indy too old? (and what about Marian?)

Posted on May 22, 2008 at 5:27 pm

My friend and fellow movie critic Christian Toto has a terrific article in Moviemaker about aging actors like Sylvester Stallone (“Rocky” and “Rambo”), Bruce Willis (“Die Hard”), and Harrison Ford (“Indiana Jones”) keeping their franchise series going over the decades.

Some of the recent aging action stars have hedged their bets by injecting their casts with younger stars. “Live Free or Die Hard” featured Justin Long (the Mac guy) to banter with Willis’ hero, and Ford will have teen sensation Shia LaBeouf (“Transformers”) to pal around with this spring.

Hanson says today’s stars in general tend to shine longer, if not as bright, as their cinematic peers from earlier eras. Actors who ruled Hollywood in the 1940s all but disappeared as major attractions 30 years later.

Yet the actors who broke through in the 1960s and ’70s, like Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood and Robert De Niro, still command above-the-title respect today. Maybe it’s just that today’s actors are savvier about the roles they choose and how they navigate the press gauntlet to keep their names in the public’s mind. Or, offers Hanson, it could be that audiences realize the older stars look more and more like they do.

“I do believe that the demographics of the U.S. population help people accept older stars in action roles,” Hanson says.
One of the highlights of the new movie is the reappearance of Indiana Jones’ best leading lady, Karen Allen as Marian. Allen is 56 years old and has been living in Vermont as a fiber artist. She admitted that as soon as she got the call about being in the movie she went to the gym but she has not had the usual Hollywood “work” done — no Botox, no face lift. She is completely authentic and radiantly lovely.

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